Charles Riley is a Memphian breaking new ground in modern dance.
He’s been written about in The New York Times. YouTube videos of him are widely circulated. And it is a success story that very easily could have never been if Riley, whose stage name in Lil Buck, had to rely on the Memphis Area Transit Authority.
Alastair Macaulay wrote about Riley last month in The New York Times. Part of the story is worth reviewing to make a point about public transportation in Memphis. Macauley talked with Katie Smythe, the founder of the New Ballet Ensemble and School, about Riley’s impact as a student of the school. She found sponsors for him and other students to attend the classes and for Riley to receive a stipend to not only be a student but also teach.
“Often she had taxis ferry him there because of the poor transportation service to and from Westwood, where he and his family were living,” Macauley wrote. “The same kind of money and taxi system applies to some of her current students.”
We have written numerous times about how most of those who ride with the Memphis Area Transit Authority daily are Memphians who have no car, no other way to get to work.
Charles Riley and other students at New Ballet don’t fit the snapshot goal of a worker at a 9-to-5 minimum wage job or a little better trying to get to work. But what those students do is every bit as important as what any other worker earning a paycheck to support his or her family is doing.
It is MATA’s failure to make its system conform to the lives of Memphians that is the reason Memphis voters in November solidly rejected the one-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase. There is no faith that the transit authority would use that money toward a goal of making bus service even relevant – never mind better.
After less than a year, MATA killed a Poplar express route that was an introduction of the bus rapid transit concept of more direct routes with more buses.
The day after the election came a YouTube video of a MATA bus letting out passengers in West Memphis on a service road off Interstate 40, with passengers walking perilously close to the interstate, which is also against traffic laws.
The message from voters was the right one and it was clear – fix the bus system with the money currently available and then possibly voters will be in more of a mood to think about additional funding.
The problem with the gas tax proposal was it put necessary improvements and a fundamental change in the direction of public transportation in Memphis on a stand-by list while leaving the existing transit system untouched. That’s not good enough. The existing system has to change.